By general agreement, James Joyce’s Ulysses is the greatest literary accomplishment of the twentieth century.
One wonders how many of those general agree-ers have ever made it through this 768-page book, seven years in the making and probably seven years in the reading. I myself scanned it in one summer. I slowed down for the famous soliloquy by Molly Bloom, the kind of a woman no healthy man would kick out of bed.
A guess would be that thousands of our literary lights have actually read Joyce’s earlier novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, thought it more or less wonderful, and assumed that Ulysses would be even better, because of the time it took to compose.
My question: if Ulysses is Number One, but A Portrait is better, how would one rank At Swim-Two-Birds, a parody of A Portrait that is enthusiastically supported by its small band of readers as superior to the novel it is lampooning? Before answering, check out Aristotle’s writings on logic; or, if they are not at hand, use your God-given brain.
My own brain, God-given or devil-driven, tells me that At Swim-Two-Birds, written by Flann O’Brien, aka Brian O’Nolan, aka Myles na Gopaleen, illegitimate grandfather of my colleague who bears that name but punctuates it with a Jr., is the best of the trio. My advice: avoid everything except the ending of Ulysses, speed-read A Portrait, but spend a year or so with Flann O’s masterpiece.
Flann O’Brien wrote the piece when he was in his twenties. It took him a while, but he got the job done. He had to correct the mistakes he found in A Portrait. Joyce’s artist is an earnest snob—the kind of a young man who puts out precious, high-flown language that appeals to the Ivy League boys and girls but describes a world your common reader knows nothing about. “I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile, and cunning.” Is it any wonder that after speeches like this, a stout student standing below this budding writer would fart briefly, eliciting the question asked by another member of the audience, “Did an angel speak?”
But our man is believable. No less a writer than Dylan Thomas judged it “just the book to give your sister if she’s a loud, dirty, boozy girl.” Flann O’s artist is a university student who spends his time either in pubs where “strong country boys [are] planking down cards and coins and roaring out the name of God” or hung over in his uncle’s attic, lying atop a bed while dressed in the beer-stained clothes of the previous night, thinking about the novel he’s planning to write.
His theory of the novel is explained at the outset: “One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with.” Parts of his novel get written and are included in the text. Finn MacCool, a hero of old Ireland, gets to tell stories in something akin to Gaelic. Irish cowboys are created and are given prominent roles and funny things to say and do (Item: “He collapsed on his back on the rich grass, shrieking aloud in his amusement. He moved his feet in the air as if operating a pedal cycle.”). There are stories within stories. The plot consists of much jumping about. It would take ten years to diagram this novel to the satisfaction of a full professor of Irish Literature, who would of course not have read it but would have voted for Ulysses as novel of the previous century, a book with which he or she would have only a nodding acquaintance.
A book to avoid at your peril.